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Gay Science Fiction:
MK takes a fresh look
As a reader, many years ago, I used to believe that science fiction would attract gay writers the way magnets and iron filings go together, and that sooner or later, when the shackles were off and gay publishing enjoyed an epoch of freedom hitherto unknown, gay SF novels would abound.
In later years, I ceased believing the above, but I still haven't stopped hoping, and in the couple of decades since I became a professional writer, I've done my bit to contribute to a booklist which is oddly, and inexplicably, meager.
Science fiction would seem, at least to me, to be a medium which lends itself so perfectly to the realm of gay writing, it should be irresistible. The opportunity to explore megatrends, to break existing society down into its component molecules and build it back up again according to some innovation in social logic ... who could resist?
Apparently, the vast majority of gay writers can resist! And I'm damned if I can guess why, though I still expend a lot of brain cells in trying to figure it out. At a guess, these writers might be gay or gay-friendly, and talented, with the ear of various publishers who either have a gay list or are gay-friendly enough to have integrated gay books into their general list ... but the missing element is an affinity with science and/or SF.
Which makes you think. Gay SF has long been a favorite among readers, but few writers want to tackle it. Readers are stranded with a surprisingly meager list, and are probably still living in hopes, like myself, that the situation will turn around.
In fact, gay SF, or queer sci fi, if you prefer, is a genre which stretches back a couple of thousand years. The first such tale is attributed to Lucian (died in 185AD), and involved a flight to the moon, an interplanetary war and a m/m marriage. One would have to say, gay science fiction was off to a flying start, but almost two millennia later, we're still struggling to put together a decent list. Not that there aren't several score titles on this list ... but how many women's romances are there? How many westerns? Or true crime novels? Hmmm. It could be argued that 'gay science fiction' is not a genre, but a sub-genre. 'Gay' is the genre, and 'SF' is a thematic aspect. Still, 'queer sci fi' has been trying to breakout, crossover, for a long time, and I've always believed it was worthy of recognition in and of itself.
For several decades now, gays have represented 'token' characters in SF, and there's a rather dubious subculture of 'gay vampire' themes which cross over into a kind of softcore chicklit, with a curiously Yaoi spin, as if this stuff is by and for (though not about) gals who get a kick out of watching the boys do it. Nothing wrong with this; it's been a staple on 'the other side of the fence' for a long time: the otherwise straight SF novel, by a straight male author, that suddenly busts out into a girl-girl sex scene ... which is just a little too predictably titillating to be taken seriously, especially in view of the fact that het male writers write het scifi for het male readers. Again ... nothing wrong with this, it's just the het-male version of Yaoi (ie., dudelit, by and for dudes who get a kick out of watching the girls do it).
But does a dash of this content, and a token gay character or two, make a book gay? Or make an SF yarn into gay science fiction?! It's the proverbial good question, and I think readers and writers alike will be pulling this one apart for some time. My own take on it is boringly fundamental: to qualify as a gay book, and/or gay science fiction, a book has to satisfy a set of criteria. Now, each of us gets the fun of setting the criteria -- why? Because we're the ones holding the credit card! We're the ones who decide to put down, or not put down, the bucks to buy this work of fiction.
(So, when Keegan is reaching for the magic plastic, what rules of thumb are buzzing in the more active centers of the brain? I want to know ... are these real gay characters, or tokens? Are they properly developed, or used as set decoration? Are they cast as the comedy relief, or do they have minds and lives of their own? Do they play any genuine part in the story, or are they passengers? Do they contribute to the denouement, or just bob about in its current? Even if they just bob about, they can be relevant, if they're properly developed, not used as the butt of jokes (which might be hilarious; but I have a moral objection to the inclusion of a gay character who's only there to make someone's jokes work) or the token gay, only there to be politically correct. Are the characters well written? Do they have their own voices (which doesn't mean talking with a 'gay accent!'), do they have anything pertinent or say ... or useful, insightful, even amusing? Another pivot-point might be the story itself. Does the plot involve gay issues? Or, does a gay person solve the problem? Is the story set in the gay community? The criteria are numerous and vast, and each reader sets the height of the bar for him- or herself.)
I leave it to you to judge the gay SF that's appeared since the 1960s and 70s, when same-gender relationships began to whisper their names in literature. These stories were subtle, yet they were often greeted with a degree of overreaction. Consider CHROME, by George Nader, which came out in 1978. Kirkus Reviews actually described it as (and I quote!) "an unholy mixture of science fiction and gay porn." Well, now, I haven't seen my copy in close to ten years (most of my library is in storage that long, and will remain crated for some time to come), but I don't recall much of anything in CHROME. Certainly nothing to make an eyebrow rise or the glasses to steam up. Your average contemporary bodice-ripper leaves it in the dust, albeit with one notable exception: your average contemporary bodice-ripper ain't gay fiction, and so long at it's he-ing and she-ing going on, rather than he-ing and he-ing, most readers don't seem to mind.
Gay publishing has progressed a long way since CHROME was published; but gay science fiction has not. There have been only a comparative few titles from the major publishing houses. SWORDSPOINT, (Ellen Kushner, Arbor House, 1987 -- the same year as Alyson's reissue of CHROME) was very delicately gay; so delicate that a young (or dense) reader could easily have missed the uh, thrust of the material. It's a good novel, yet very, very 'fragile' in its hinting at gay relationships.
Between 1987 and 1989, Storm Constantine's 'Wraethu' trilogy was released ... this is the 'gay SF you write when you're not writing gay SF.' THE ENCHANTMENTS OF FLESH AND SPIRIT, THE BEWITCHMENTS OF LOVE AND HATE, and THE FULFILMENTS OF FATE AND DESIRE are quite good novels (the first is the best; the last is too long and didn't quite deliver). What makes them fascinating as quasi-gay books is the exploration of, and treatment of, a new culture and sorta-kinda new gender. It's problematical as 'gay fiction,' because when you realize these guys have turned into hermaphrodites, ovaries and all ... can anything that happens next be categorized as gay? Well worth a look, but they're only 'gay by association' ... it's almost as if Constantine had been steeped in gay Star Trek 'fanfiction' which ran riot, and a good time was had by all, through the 1980s and 90s, and would have loved to have written a flat-out gay SF trilogy, but either couldn't muster the courage, or didn't think it would be sellable in 1987...
In all honesty, Ms Constantine might have been dead right. Mainstream publishers had dabbled in gay material over the years, with works like DAHLGREN (Samuel R. Delaney, circa 1975; original edition might have been Avon or Bantam ... my books are crated!). But call DHALGREN gay at your peril; it was Literature, note the capitalization. In 1984 and 1986 Alyson Publications experimented with two anthologies, KINDRED SPIRITS and WORLDS APART, but the experiment in SF can't have been too successful, because they didn't try more new SF till 1999, with SWORDS OF THE RAINBOW. Marion Zimmer Bradley had been doing a kind of 'hint, nudge, hint' gay SF since the 1960s, with DARKOVER (many dates, many publishers), but there was little 'meat' in any of these books.
In many ways, CHROME was the first novel in print to just come right out and say it: these characters are gay, they're having sex, and if you don't like it, stop reading. In 1985 pulp writer Karl Hansen sold DREAM GAMES to Ace ... and I'm not saying that the novel is gay, but it's certainly tiptoeing around the edges. I'd call it 'pansexual' or 'omnisexual.' Again, 'sorta-kinda gay by association,' which has been said of the last X-MEN movie, which has a palpable gay undercurrent, though they're not about to be obvious in a Very Major motion picture! The fact that Hansen could sell an omnisexual book like DREAM GAMES to Ace in 1985 is extremely important. KINDRED SPIRITS, WORLDS APART and CHROME were being issued by Alyson in that time frame; but Ace isn't a gay publisher. It's mainstream.
And the case for gay science fiction got better in 1988, when Methuen bought A MATTER OF OATHS from Helen Wright. The novel is far from explicit, but it's absolutely specific. The reader is left in absolutely no doubt about who is sleeping with whom. No 'hint, nudge hint' treatment. Was the mainstream marketplace ready for a major breakthrough?
It probably came in 1992, with a book which was widely acclaimed, published by a mainstream house (TOR), and written by Maureen F. McHugh, who has been nominated for almost every award in the business. CHINA MOUNTAIN ZHANG is one of only four novels by this writer, who seems to concentrate on the short story and novella forms (and it's our loss). This was her first novel; also her best. And by any criteria you assign, it's a gay book, and a mainstream SF novel too. Damned fine writing, unforgettable plot and characters.
CHINA MOUNTAIN ZHANG should have opened the sluice gates, but it didn't. Many, many novels continued to come along from writers like Tanya Huff and Judith Tarr and Elizabeth A Lynn, and so forth, but we were right back to the 'hint, nudge, hint' style of story telling, thick with innuendo and gay references, but when it comes to the 'put your money where your mouth is' line, either the writers won't or can't deliver, the publishers won't or can't print it, or the readers won't or can't buy it.
David Gerrold seems to have been picking at this whole question for a long time. In 2000, TOR published JUMPING OFF THE PLANET in hardcover, and the gay content in the book sneaks up on you. Nothing in the binding or blurb gives any indication that there's gay content, and thematic material which could be said to 'promote the gay lifestyle' in a work written for younger readers. Scottish law aside, it's a great book; but it is definitely aimed at those younger readers, and I wonder if any parents, anywhere, were mad as hell when they realized they'd given little Johnny a gay book for Christmas! Gerrold was juggling with fire, and (which is vastly important) TOR aided and abetted him while he did it. JUMPING is a marvelous book, and one imagines, if it had been aimed at big kids, it might have 'delivered the goods' a little more rather than leaving the readers as secondhand spectators at a very delicately handled gay coming out story.
There's a very short list of genuine gay science fiction books. There's a somewhat longer list of 'hint, nudge' books; and there's an interesting sub-sub-category list of 'gay by association' books. But I must end this with the same observations I made when I began. What the heck happened to the flood of top-line, really gay books that are also great science fiction?! I'd love to quote titles like EQUINOX, and APHELION, AQUAMARINE and DEEP SKY, but I wrote them! It's someone else's turn now. Come on, guys, show us your best stuff!